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Program Helps Middle Schoolers GEAR UP for College

A federal program for low-income middle school students helps them prepare for college as early as sixth grade. That program provides a wide variety of information and experiences for students. It also puts much-needed information into the hands of parents who might not have time to gather it on their own. "That [information] is very powerful," one program administrator told Education World. Included: Administrators from rural and urban school systems tell Education World how they are gearing up their students for college!

Middle school students in Dewar, Oklahoma; Riverton, Wyoming; and Los Angeles come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, but many now are working toward a common goal -- college -- thanks to a federal grant program, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).

Schools in those areas were among 79 schools or districts nationwide in 2000 sharing $45.6 million in GEAR UP grants. The program, started in 1998, links high-poverty middle schools with community and business organizations and local colleges and universities. The partnerships developed through the program assist families with the college application process and help prepare students academically for college.

Most of the grants are awarded to five-year programs, although the amount a grantee receives varies from year to year, according to the U.S. Department of Education .

VARIETY OF SUPPORT

The main point of the program is to give disadvantaged students -- usually beginning with sixth graders -- a head start for college. Key activities include tutoring, counseling for students and parents, mentoring, and visits to college campuses to meet with faculty and advisers. Students remain in the program until they graduate from high school.

Schools applying for grants must demonstrate that they have significant need for support services for poor and minority students and the ability to raise matching funds. They must also supply a proposal that illustrates how school officials plan to address aspects of the need for support services and evidence of a partnership with a college and at least two other organizations, according to Maureen McLaughlin, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Post-Secondary Education.

Low-income students in both urban and rural areas face many of the same obstacles in attending college, McLaughlin said. "The big issues are whether they are academically prepared and whether they have taken a strong and demanding sequence of courses. We also need to increase awareness of what college is and what colleges are available."

INCREASING AWARENESS

In rural Dewar, Oklahoma, the $90,118 GEAR UP grant enabled 120 sixth-grade and 30 fifth-grade students to visit college campuses. The funds also were used for tutoring and career and parent education programs.

"We are very excited to get the grant," said Billy Green, school superintendent for Dewar Independent School District No. 8. "We are one of only two public schools in Oklahoma to get a grant.

"We want our kids to be as ready as possible, and we want to make sure our kids are ready to make an informed decision," added Green. "They will go to campuses and do things our kids haven't been exposed to in rural Oklahoma."

Dewar is a one-building school district with 515 students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. About 50 percent of the students are Native Americans. Approximately 70 percent of graduating seniors attend college, Green explained, and many of the students are the first in their families to do so.

Lack of money and limited exposure to higher education are among the hurdles Dewar students have to clear on the path to college, Green said. Those are problems that school officials plan to tackle with the GEAR UP funds.

BOLSTERING READING AND MATH SKILLS

Staff members at the Los Angeles Unified School District have similar goals for 1,700 middle school students who are participating in GEAR UP.

Los Angeles received $1,027,715 in its second grant year and added two middle schools to the program for a total of three. About 85 percent of the students in those schools are Latinos.

The focus of the Los Angeles program is to improve students' reading and mathematics skills and to involve parents more in planning their children's educational future, said Anna Eleftheriou, director of Project Higher Learning, the Los Angeles GEAR UP program.

For many of the students, poor reading skills affect their performance through middle school and high school. That can be one of the biggest obstacles to attending college, she said.

"They come to sixth grade reading below grade level, and they never catch up," Eleftheriou told Education World. Tutoring programs are designed to improve student reading and prepare some youngsters to take a higher-level math course, such as elementary algebra, in eighth grade.

About 200 students registered for academic tutoring in 2000, and seventh- and eighth-grade students were slated to take the practice Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT), she said.

Currently, fewer than 50 percent of the students graduating from the high school serving the three middle schools attend college. "We want kids to realize a sophisticated view of the world, what's really going on out there," Eleftheriou said.

Counseling is also provided to parents, so they can learn about the importance of grades and test scores in the college application process, as well as financial planning. Students and parents visit campuses of several colleges, including Los Angeles City College, Glendale Community College, Occidental College, and California State University at San Bernadino.

"It's hard to get parents involved at the middle and high school level," Eleftheriou said. "We want parents to understand what courses are needed to prepare for college." School staff members realize, though, that many parents are working two or three jobs to support their families and may not have time to research the college application process, added Eleftheriou.

Still, a little information can have a strong impact. "That [information] is very powerful -- a lot of parents just don't know about the process," she noted.

SIGNS OF EARLY SUCCESS

Another GEAR UP recipient was looking for continued success in its second year. The program out of Central Wyoming College in Riverton serves seven rural middle schools in Fremont County that are among the poorest in the nation.

Standardized math test scores increased by 11 percent among students who had participated in GEAR UP study halls and math review nights for just one year, according to program administrators. Students also attended mini courses on college campuses to get a feel for college-level work and what instructors expect.

"The biggest change has been the excitement among teachers and kids," said Kristy Salisbury, project director of the Wyoming College program, which is called Community, Host, Academic, Mentoring Partnership (CHAMP). Many of the students are more inspired about learning, she said. "The kids who came to campus are also so excited about college now."

Technology plays a big role in the program. Students are excited that technology links the schools to each other and to colleges. "The county we're serving is bigger than several states," Salisbury told Education World. One of the lessons students worked on using the Internet was with staff from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

CHAMP received $522,078 in GEAR UP money in 2000, up from $432,396 in its first year. The program served about 1,100 seventh and eighth graders in 2000-01, up from about 520 seventh graders last year.

About 400 out of the 1,100 youngsters in the program are Native Americans. Four of the seven middle schools are Native American reservation schools. At the other three schools, 33 percent of those participating also are Native Americans. Between 1 percent and 2 percent of the Native American students at those schools have entered and completed college in the past, Salisbury said.

CHAMP administrators planned to continue to track the students over five years and monitor improvement.

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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Originally published 12/01/2000; updated 09/07/2007